Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why We're Not Getting Married

Hannah Seligson has some interesting commentary and information on The Daily Beast about the courting habits of the under 40's. Some of the reasons that people participate in long term relationships but don't necessarily marry or marry much later are included below:

We want it all. We are looking for someone to be our gym buddy, career counselor, best friend, lover, creative inspiration, and therapist. In short, the intimacy expectations of young people today are off the charts. The soul mate fetish has given way to lines like: “I want to be as excited to see him in 30 years as the day we first met.” According to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, an overwhelming majority (94 percent) of never-married singles between 20 to 29 agrees, “when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” And that quest for “certainty” and that magic mix of qualities can take years of dating to uncover.

Fear of divorce. The divorce culture, pioneered by the Baby Boomers, is shaping the dating landscape today. With the memories of custody battles, acrimonious dinner tables, and a general atmosphere of family unrest being a not-so-distant flicker in the past, Gen Ys are resolute about not repeating the mistakes their parents made, breeding a rigorous evaluation process for prospective mates. “I want to be sure” has become their Greek chorus and a way to go into marriage with all the right armor.

Adulthood is for later. The timeline to adulthood has been loosened, says Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor at Clark University who studies twenty-somethings. Arnett points out that the concept of “emerging adults” didn’t even exist before Gen Ys, because in previous generations there was no transition into adulthood, you just became one. The zeitgeist today, however, is expressed through lines like: “I’m in no rush. Case in point: the hottest comic strip on the papers this year is Dustin, about an unmarried, unemployed 23-year-old who lives at home with his parents.

Careers take longer to forge. The days of going to work for one company and retiring with a gold watch 40 years later are long gone. Careers are now something we have many of and the path to them is often murky, at best. The new order of adulthood typical of this generation is to establish oneself in a career before getting married. For men in particular, this new order of events is causing an interference with mating—research has consistently shown that whether and when a man marries is closely tied to the adequacy and stability of his earnings.

A bounty of birth control. Before birth control, a good part of the impetus to get married was, quite simply, it was too risky to have sex outside of marriage. As a male 28-year-old “A Little Bit Married” said: “If I had to be married to have sex, I would probably be married, as would every guy I know.” (Read the whole thing here)

I'm really interested in hearing people's reactions to this piece, especially the singles out there. Is Seligson describing you and/or your friends?

Here's a few thoughts:

The soul mate thing:
"There is no teaching in the Bahá'í Faith that 'soul mates' exist. What is meant is that marriage should lead to a profound friendship of spirit, which will endure in the next world, where there is no sex, and no giving and taking in marriage; just the way we should establish with our parents, our children, our brothers and sisters and friends deep spiritual bond which will be ever-lasting, and not merely physical bonds of human relationship."
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, December 4, 1954)

It occurred to me that the soul mate concept may very well reflect a strong desire among people to experience the "profound friendship of spirit" mentioned in the above quote. If so, there is nothing wrong with pursuing a relationship with this quality. However, if the the soul mate concept involves the notion that there is this one person in the universe that you are somehow preordained to live a life of bliss with this can cause problems. At the very least it severely limits the possibilities for finding a mate. The Baha'i writings emphasize "character" as the criterion for mate selection and while there may only be one "soul mate" there are potentially many people who can have a good character.

Shaken faith in marriage:
I have long believed that many of my peers, even those who were committed to trying to get married, were burdened with a severely shaken faith in the institution of marriage due to the issues mentioned in this article. It doesn't mean that if your parents divorced or even stuck it out in a miserable marriage that you can't marry happily, but it can make you doubt how likely you'll be to succeed. Addressing the concerns of young adults from such families should be a commonsense dimension of any marriage education effort.

Suspended adolescence:
"That which was applicable to human needs during the early history of the race could neither meet nor satisfy the demands of this day and period of newness and consummation. Humanity has emerged from its former degrees of limitation and preliminary training. Man must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moralities, new capacities. New bounties, bestowals and perfections are awaiting and already descending upon him. The gifts and graces of the period of youth, although timely and sufficient during the adolescence of the world of mankind, are now incapable of meeting the requirements of its maturity. The playthings of childhood and infancy no longer satisfy or interest the adult mind."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 438)

I think the lengthening of time between adolescence and adulthood in our culture represents a kind of suspended adolescence due to spiritual immaturity. Not everyone is ready to take on "new virtues and powers, new moralities, new capacities", including in the area of courtship.

There's lots more that could be said, but I'll stop here and see what readers think.


  1. Julie5:14 PM

    Thank you very much for sharing this information. I think it is a very important topic and not talked about often enough, especially in the Baha'i community. My feeling is that a major reason for the high divorce rate and delayed marriage is that we are still very far from carrying out the equality of men and women that Baha'u'llah has asked us to do. I think there is a huge block in the Baha'i community about this issue because Baha'is tend to think they have this basic principle of the Faith figured out, when in reality we are very very far from the reality of what it will look like when women and men are actually viewed as equal, even in the Baha'i community.

    There are many divorces happening among young Baha'i couples and I think a big part of it is that the women can feel they aren't viewed as an equal in the eyes of their husbands. Very likely neither of them is even aware that this is the real issue, they just think it is incompatibility. I really think the equality of men and women is very under talked about in the Baha'i community because we think we already have it figured out.

    Some taking ourselves to account is in order...

  2. Thanks Julie for sharing your thoughts. I have heard this kind of comment often, usually from women in the Baha'i community. I have often thought that we have more practice talking about issues of race than gender and this is something to work on, especially if gender equality is the "elephant in the room" so to speak as far as courtship goes.

  3. Julie7:04 PM

    Thank you Phillipe for your sincerity and insightful observations. Yes, I agree gender equality is definitely the "elephant in the room" - I would say not only with courtship, but in many types of interactions. What is ironic is that often both men and women can't see this "elephant" and think it is a turtle or a dog or something completely different :)

  4. Julie, nice metaphors. If men and women saw this elephant more clearly, what do you think would be different about the way they live and interact? What do others think about this?

  5. Second attempt -- my first post vanished, and I'm not sure I want to bore myself with it all! Just to say first of all that perceptions of gender inequality within the Baha'i community, as interesting a topic as it is, is probably not responsible for fewer marriages within the wider society.

    With regards to why people don't marry: my feeling is that it's because it's not actually an important thing. Just a hang-up from the past. If an action has no inherent value, it's logical that it is less performed. Most of the people I know don't view marriage as an institution, but something to do when thinking about having kids, out of a sense of tradition. None of the traditional (religious) and special attributes of marriage -- lifelong companionship of a man and woman, sexual congress, having children, are seen as inappropriate outside of marriage.

    An (imperfect) example that came to mind was observance of kosher amongst relgious and non-religious jews. Although I have no data to back this up, my anecdotal observations suggest that the former group keep kosher more than the latter. For the former, the law has spiritual import and implications. However, the non-religious group don't not keep kosher at all. It's still a tradition. But it's easy to justify not doing so for the sake of expediency, or whatever. And importantly, there are no perceived_consequences_, positive or negative for keeping or breaking kosher.

    I also have various thoughts about the fallacy of 'soul-mates' which our current society is obsessed with. And on the issue of why the marriages of (say, religious) people fail...well that's for another time!


  6. Wow! Our attitudes and behavior re: human sexuality and overconsumption have prod. what the Guardian called "insincerity and selfishness". The Baha'i laws are few, but notice they are pivotal re: character development. The laws help us counteract and combat the excesses of human sexuality and overconsumption wch. are traslated in "freedom" in our culture. By avoiding the subject w. children and youth we doom them. How we think we can raise a new race of men (and women) by pretending sex doesn't exist, don't talk about it,and pretending people aren't having sex, baffles the mind. The Baha'i laws concerning chastity seem draconian in these times. Baha'i young people leap into sex relations (for different gender reasons) then justufy it w. marriage-a second thought, often having no concern for long-lasting compatibility. When the lites go on after early sexual intercourse/marriage, they panic and bolt.M. Geula and I did a wrkshop on this @ Green Acre a few yrs. ago, but we were preaching to the choir... you are on the road less traveled. We have to make this rd. a more popular destination (-;

  7. Babak, I think you are on to something as far as marriage being done out of a sense of tradition rather than understanding it as an institution (and a divine one at that). There is little incentive to marry these days if you can have all the emotional, physical, and material benefits without doing so (i.e. co-habitation). The man in the article who said that if he and his friends thought they'd have to get married to have sex they'd get married was being very straightforward if a bit crude.

    Dr. Chandler, glad you added your voice. As I've said before, I've yet to see a problem solved by not discussing it. There is a need to "keep it real" about these issues and to engage in some systematic learning. Such a process can potentially benefit people in general and not just Baha'is.

  8. Anonymous12:16 PM

    A few thoughts:

    Firstly concerning the issue of marriage, I think that the big challenge for Bahá'í youth is to put into action what they can learn from the words because in the world around them they may not be seeing many positive role models. If they are lucky they may see them in their families and community but not necessarily - we are still spread pretty thin. They certainly won't find them in the media.

    We have many people who have done their best based on their understanding at the time! I think there a lot of things in society at the moment that are very anti-marriage and can put pressure on existing marriages.

    I wonder how many soon to be married Bahá'ís have found a book or booklet on Bahá'í marriage only to discover most of it seems to be about selecting your partner and getting to know them before you make that commitment?

    With regards to soul mates, It is a very popular concept and can be quite a dangerous thing. I remember being 18 and watching TV footage of people starving in Ethiopia and thinking "what if my soul-mate is there and about to drop dead or in China, or somewhere else I will never go?" I then realized that a Just God would not put such a stupid system in place.

    Knowing people who have married for a lot of different reasons, it is not always the pairs who start with an abundance of romantic love who make it through. Relationships take work


  9. Pauline, always a pleasure. It is true that we are in the paradoxical business of creating a new civilization in the context of the existing one which is falling down around us, what's going on with marriage is a good example of this. "Romantic love" is itself worth talking about, such as whether it is truly "love" at all or simply "passion and desire" as the Baha'i Writings might say.

  10. Anonymous1:57 PM

    When my daughter married at age 22, the best man spoke about his amazement at their willingness to take a leap into commitment particularly in the form of marriage. From many people I heard the following 'why don't they live together to see if they're compatible' and 'how does someone so young know that they found the right person'. When I was young, many of my friends would speak about their 'soul mate' and truly believed that there was one person out there meant for them. I disagreed with them. I felt that there were many men out there that I could marry and my biggest concern was our compatibility. Did we share common values and express them in the same manner? Was the person inherently a truthful person not only to himself but to others? Did her treat others with respect? My mother gave me wise advice to build happy memories in our relationship and to remember those times when times were difficult. I didn't see my spouse as solving my problems, making me happy, etc. but a companion. I told my daughter before getting married that it was not her husband's job to make her happy or to fulfill all of her hopes and dreams. I've seen many couples separate over the years because 'he wasn't making me happy' or 'she wasn't the person that I expected'. I'm not advocating people staying in miserable and abusive relationships but I think that more divorces could be adverted if the individuals in those marriages had realistic expectations of their spouses and marriage. I've been married for 33 years and it's a strong marriage. Even in the most difficult times, I never once thought of separation and divorce as an option. Instead we've talked and worked through our difficulties. You can't expect too much or too little from marriage. I think that too many people in Western countries expect too much.

  11. Anonymous4:03 PM

    I'd be interested to read what Baha'is view the purpose of marriage to be. Are married people purely companions (like roomates? or what kind of companions are they?) or are married people meant to encourage spiritual and character development in each other (consciously)?

  12. Please allow me to note that there is a book I would recommend for those interested in this topic, published in 2006 by Baha'i Publishing. "Partners in Spirit: What Couples Say About Marriages That Work" covers a number of the issues raised here using a story-based approach. Case studies of more than 40 couples from around the world deal with many of the challenges of marriage, as well as its blessings, synthesized with the author's research and some of the Baha'i teachings. It's not expensive and yes, it does include courtship, with some interesting insights from couples who have been married a long time. While I am its author, the truth is that the authors are the couples who took the time to write their experiences for the book. I hope for those reading this blog and responding that you find the book useful. I know I found it very helpful to hear everyone's reflections as I was compiling it. Worth the 12 bucks or so.

  13. Anonymous, great questions indeed and thanks Heather Cardin for recommending your book. I've read selections with other young couples and would also recommend it to people who are interested in this topic!

  14. Anonymous8:15 PM

    "I'd be interested to read what Baha'is view the purpose of marriage to be. Are married people purely companions (like roomates? or what kind of companions are they?) or are married people meant to encourage spiritual and character development in each other (consciously)?''

    My husband is a companion to me on multiple levels. We support each other spiritually, emotionally, and physically. As we grow older, I find our bond growing stronger because it is a spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical relationship. I support him and he support me. It is not anything like a roommate relationship but a profound and deep love.

  15. Ever since I became a Baha'i about 7 years ago, I have fallen in love with what the Holy Writings say about spiritual marriage. In our society we have barely glimpsed the potential power of a marriage when the couple is truly united. It makes me think of the Golden Age and how even the idea of lying would be so put-offing to most of the people in that civilization that they would rather die than be untruthful. I love to dream about the souls who will live on this earth during that time and imagine what their everyday reality would be like. And this includes in the arena of marriage. Just imagine the love, the unity, the selflessness, the true equality between men and women that will occur. Some married couples are making great strides even today in this direction. May we all strive for such beauty in our lives and in our devotion to Baha'u'llah. What a great conversation this is - thanks to everyone for sharing!

  16. Julie it is awesome to contemplate the future you are describing. We are living in a time of great materialism on the one hand and spiritual confusion on the other. Future generations will look back on this time and wonder how we even survived.

  17. Wow, this is an extremely good article and hits all the right points.

    I have had friends, who have cohabited/perpetually engaged for 8/10 years and then just split up, I think its because they don't make that final commitment, which binds you together. Not only legally, financially and physically, but spiritually as well.

    I must admit, me and my wife were headed towards that, until we became Baha'is and realised that we needed to take that step, now we are closer than ever.

  18. Michael, nice to hear a man's voice in this discussion. What you're describing is fascinating.

  19. Very good point Phillipe about future generations wondering how we survived. I think they will think we live in a positively barbaric state - like how we think of humans in the Cave Man days or the Dark Ages, something like that. Sometimes I wish I would have been born in the Golden Age when all this work we're doing now will bear abundant fruit. But then I remember the bounty of serving the Abha Beauty in this Day and I try to reign myself in :) But I still struggle with it...

  20. Julie, better days are ahead. They will come, but it will take time.

  21. Hi Phillipe.

    Great article, I've really been enjoying the discussion.

    I have seen that a lot of people in my age group have experienced a broken marriage and many are now single parents. Some people are disillusioned and either don't believe in lifelong marriage anymore or don't want to risk the emotional and financial burdens of divorce. Of course people still desire companionship and intimacy, just not necessarily marriage.

    This certainly presents a challenge to the single Baha'i who doesn't have the option of being "a little bit married". I haven't heard this issue discussed much in our community, the unfortunate single must just plod along trying to remain observant of the Baha'i laws and navigate the dating world the best they can. Very hard to combine the two most times!

    Haven't really figured out a solution to this one myself. I think we really must be pioneers in a society increasingly disillusioned with marriage. We must somehow create a new culture of human relationships based on how Baha'u'llah wants us to live. We must transform the way we live and relate to each other when we are single, when we are searching for spouses, and when we are married couples.

    Looking forward to more discussion on this topic within the Baha'i community. I think increasingly a lot of us are facing these issues, not only the youth who eventually look to choose a spouse, but also those of us who find ourselves single again due to being divorced or widowed.


  22. I'm really interested in the point about "extended adolescence" and how that could be related to an immature spirit.

    In developmental psychology, we look at connections between emerging adulthood and financial immaturity, as well as immaturity in regards to the social roles and responsibilities that one portrays in their early twenties. But in contrast, emerging adulthood has also been linked to more mature cognitive development (due to high levels of education being obtained). This has been connected with speeding up "identity development" that is, young adults now have a better idea of where they stand politically and vocationally, if not necessarily romantically. So would it actually affect a young adult's spiritual identity? And if it did, in what direction?

  23. Anne, thanks for always piping in on these topics. I agree with you and think we are learning how to learn right now and can apply this to issues like courtship and marriage.

    Modern Girl this is really an interesting point. In the Baha'i Faith, a person is expected to assume responsibility for his or her spiritual life at 15, the age of maturity. My sense is that there is an expectation of a different pace of maturation for people in Baha'i teaching than what the emerging adulthood concept would suggest. Another thing I've observed is that for some people they never seem to stop emerging and actually become adults!

  24. Great post, great discussion.

    When I look at older generations (like my grandparents or those of people I know), I get the sense that their lives were focused more generally on survival than on emotional fulfillment. Think of the world events that these people lived through -- global economic collapse and world war being probably the worst -- and I think you get a sense for what tone was set for their lives when they were young.

    So the concept of marriage as a tool for self-gratifiication was much less developed, even though from what I understand my grandparents had loving marriages.

    Recently I went with my fiance to watch the movie "Leap Year", which turned out to be your run-of-the-mill fantasy romantic comedy. Awful film on all accounts by the way. While I was watching this ridiculous film, I started to wonder, Why is Hollywood still making this same crap in different forms over and over? That's when I realized that the demand is still abundant for films that break the laws of life and perpetuate a fantasy where marriage is about emotional fulfillment, in-the-moment stimulation, and explosive romance.

    From both a religious and a spiritual point of view, marriage is not intented by nature to be like that. Science tells us that in the beginning a certain hormone gives you a feeling of euphoric love, which is later replaced by another hormone that makes you feel warm and affectionate endearment. And the Bahai concept of love is based more on selfless dedication and tireless service to another, rather than the "what can you do for me" concept in the movies.

  25. Eamon well said. My wife would tell you I am no fan of romantic comedies for exactly the reasons you mention. They perpetuate what I think are problematic if not outright harmful ideas about love, courtship, marriage etc. I know people claim that everyone knows these are just movies and not real life, but I've found that too many people's lives tend to imitate art in the case of rom-coms because their whole concept of love and romance has been influenced by these films.

  26. Love the discussion on this post! So many good points; I really feel like I don't have much to add because the other participants have already posted my thoughts. But that's good, right? I've been a Baha'i since 1986, and I got a divorce a year after I declared. Coincidence?

    Well, I certainly didn't investigate my ex-husband's character before getting married. In fact, I didn't investigate MY OWN character before getting married! That is the mistake that I have been correcting for over 20 years now. I don't know if this spiritual journey will lead to another marriage or not; that part I leave up to God. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say it doesn't matter. The focus of my love must be God, and everything else flows from that central point.

    I can certainly understand young people's objections to marriage. People of my generation (the late "boomers" aka the "me first" or "disco" generation)haven't been good role models for our children as far as marriage and raising a family is concerned. But it's never too late. I know women who in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are dating after losing a spouse to divorce or death, and they have become my role models in terms of taking responsibility for their continued spiritual, physical and mental health while investigating a potential mate's character. None of them are Baha'is, but they all make sure their spiritual connection to God comes first, and that the men they date understand that.

    And yes, they obey the laws of chastity, not because they fear becoming "sinners in the hands of an angry God", but because they recognize the overwhelmingly powerful emotional connection that is created during sex, and how it is spiritually and emotionally damaging in the long run to treat sex as a source of temporary gratification. I feel that the wisdom of the womens' experiences are priceless lessons to me. I wish everyone could have similar mentors in their lives.

  27. Angela, good point about it never being too late to learn the value of approaching courtship in a spiritual way. What you said about the emotional connection that happens during sex is important as well, though I wonder if the current "hook up" culture that many young people are experiencing may erode that connection. If you've been having sex with a variety of random people over years how does that impact your ability to bond deeply with one person if and when you get married?

  28. Anonymous that was a funny statement from your friend. I might revise it to say that we're given a drive and then provided with rules so we can reach our destination safely. Whether we follow those rules or not is a decision we make and when we don't we can harm ourselves or others, or "get lost" so to speak. To play with your metaphor a bit more, the Baha'i teachings on these issues serve as our GPS, so to speak, helping us get where we need to go without having to waste time getting lost along the way.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  29. Anonymous12:29 PM

    I just stumbled across this post while looking for some guidance. I'm 23yrs old, born and raised Baha'i and I'm not married. This doesn't sound outrageous to anyone outside our community but I'm starting to feeling like a spinster. Most of my friends married between 18 and 21 after knowing their partners for a very short time. I feel like every baha'i male I meet should be my husband. I have two marriage proposals from men that I've met at youth conferences and have only known for 2months maxiumum (one of the guys I had only known for 6wks and had seen him in person 4 times). I guess the men are feeling the pressure too. How am I supposed to be evaluating my future partners character if I feel like the clock running is running out and I will be pitied if I'm not married by 25? I'm Iranian which I believe plays a big role as my peers have all married very young.

  30. Anonymous1:20 PM

    I was raised with the Baha'i Teachings since the age of 8. My parents and grandparents have been beautiful examples of what marriage should be. Being 20 and excited about getting married for over a year now, I have definitely encountered my fair share of differing view points!
    What I have come to recognize as a pattern in many people's "let me tell you why you shouldn't get married young" schpeals is:
    1. a fear of commitment,
    2. an unwillingness to compromise,
    3. and a lack of gratefulness for what they had/have.

    It has been stated before that people now have this fear of taking the next big step into making a spiritual commitment to one another. Abdu'l-Baha says, "If... the bond is physical and nothing more, it is sure to be only temporary, and must inexorably end in separation." We MUST begin/continue our relationships with spiritual goals.

    The ability to let go of your opinions and feelings in order to truly HEAR another person and be able to compromise with them is a priceless tool! I encounter so many young people who just never had a good example in there lives of parents who were able to listen to each other and talk things out that now they don't realize that is a skill that exists! It is so important to have this ability in order to maintain a healthy relationship with your mother, let alone your spouse! How sad that there are generations of people lacking an example of a healthy spiritual AND physical relationship.

    Our society is so materially driven these days that it makes it nearly impossible to feel content and grateful for what we have. Even those who are strong in their faith, have great mentors, etc. still find themselves longing for a bigger house or that gorgeous Vera Wang dress! If we are not grateful for the roof over our heads, how can we truly be thankful for the person who has committed their life to us? Some of the most gracious and thankful people I have met in my life were orphaned children in central america who shared poor living quarters with too many other children and not nearly enough of anything else! Maybe if we can remove ourselves, even slightly, from all the STUFF we have we will learn to appreciate the people we have!

    I have found sanctuary in the Baha'i Writings on marriage and courtship. I have found that in discussing my frustrations with my parents and other older married people (Baha'i or non) helps me tremendously to feel reassured in my decision.
    The Baha'i Writings say to marry young and that the purpose of marriage is to help one another (as well as the next generation) to progress spiritually. While most people my age are out drinking and partying, I find comfort in the idea of being part of something bigger than myself, of raising the next generation of God's servants.